Appeal Hearing Decision: City Press and Rapport vs. Bayoglu Vuslat

Decision: Appeal Hearing

Applicant:  City Press and Rapport

Respondent: Vuslat Bayoglu

Matter No: 3159/03/2017

1.     Vuslat Bayoglu (“respondent”), lodged a complaint with the Press Ombud in connection with two articles: one in City Press (“first appellant”) and the other one in Rapport (“second appellant”).  The two articles appeared on the same day, namely, 5 February 2017.  Both the respondent and the Press Council Ombud dealt with the two articles as one complaint.

2.     The respondent is of Turkish origin, and has been in this country for years; in fact he is a permanent resident.  His complaint was that, in both newspapers, he was described as a Turkish fugitive; a “mafia”, that he was sought back in Turkey for terrorism; that he had smuggled money into South Africa; and that he was wanted back in Turkey as part of a terror group.  He complained that by making all these allegations, respondent contravened certain articles of the Press Code.  He denied all the above allegations, individually.  He wanted the appellants to publish an apology, retraction and correction as a matter of urgency, and for the articles to be removed from the News24 websites.  He added that the articles caused harm to his dignity, and reputation.  He also complained that he was not contacted for comment.

3.     The appellants’ defence was that the respondent was indeed contacted for comment. They also argued that not only were the allegations contained in a Turkish Newspaper, the Daily Sabah (which quoted a former Turkish ambassador to South Africa), but that the journalist had also conducted her own verification of the allegations.  The journalist established, i.a with the National Prosecuting Authority that an investigation was under way into allegations relating to the business activities of the respondent in South Africa. It is not necessary to go into other allegations made against the respondent.

4.     In his Ruling, the Ombud dismissed all the complaints but one, namely, respondent’s complaint that he was not contacted for comment in respect of one particular allegation, namely, that he was a fugitive. The Ombud accordingly held that article 1.8 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct was breached.  A sanction was then imposed.

5.     The following are the circumstances under which the dispute about the failure to give the respondent the opportunity to comment arose:

5.1    The journalist said she telephonically asked the respondent to comment on the allegations, including that of being a fugitive;

5.2    She says the respondent denied the allegations;

5.3    She says the respondent’s denials were carried in the report;

The appellants argued that even if the question about being a fugitive was not raised in the written questions, he was asked this question as part of  the telephonic interview; and that written questions cannot supersede a telephonic interview (in which the opportunity was offered, and not only taken, but the response covered in the article): “Any possible doubt whether (the journalist) questioned (the respondent) on the fugitive issue is removed in the article itself when (the journalist) included (respondent’s) response”. Appellants argue further that article 1.8 of the Code does not prescribe in what form the offer to comment should be. But according to the Ombud, in the written questions or request to the respondent for comment, he was not asked about being a “fugitive”, but a “refugee”. Noting that there is a significant difference between called a “fugitive” and a “refugee”, the Ombud held that article 1.8 was breached.

6.   The respondent’s counter-application for leave to appeal the merits failed, but was only granted leave to appeal the sanction which he had complained was too lenient. On the other hand, the appellants were granted leave to appeal only whether or not the Ombud was correct in holding they breached article 1.8 of the Code by not asking Bayoglu specifically if he was a fugitive from justice in Turkey.

7.     At the appeal stage, the appellants sought the panel’s permission to introduce the journalist’s handwritten notes made during the telephonic interview. This was meant to prove that she had indeed asked the respondent during the telephone interview to respond to the allegation in the Turkish media that he was a fugitive from justice. The note reflected that he had said: “I am not a fugitive – I am an ordinary guy …. a mechanical engineer”.

8.     The panel accepted that Mr Bayoglu may well have said this to the journalist during the interview but it was not proof that he had been asked to respond to a specific contextual question as to whether he was a fugitive from Turkish justice. The panel took into account that the written questions later submitted to the respondent by the journalist referred to him only as a “refugee” and not as a “fugitive”.

9.     The articles published by the appellants repeated extremely serious allegations against Mr Bayoglu (including terrorism, criminal activities and flight from the Turkish Government) that were lifted from a Turkish newspaper as being attributable to the former Turkish Ambassador in South Africa.

10.   The Code, read with article 3.3. (Privacy, Dignity and Reputation), placed the appellants under a strict obligation to seek Mr Bayoglu’s specific and contextual response to each of the allegations.

11.   The Ombud was satisfied that the appellants had met this standard in respect of the “terrorism” allegation.  The articles correctly referred to “alleged terrorism”and Mr Bayoglu’s strong denial was adequately reported.

12.   Based on the evidence presented, including the journalist’s handwritten notes, the panel rules that the journalist did not ask Mr Bayoglu specifically to comment on the allegation that he was a “fugitive” (from Turkish justice).  This oversight was compounded by the appellants’ decision to repeatedly refer to him in the articles as a fugitive rather than as an alleged fugitive, or to put the word “fugitive” in quotation marks.

13.   The panel therefore upholds the Ombud’s ruling in regard to a breach of article 1.8.

14.   Regarding the respondent’s counter appeal against the sanction imposed on the appellants, the panel, though sympathetic to Mr Bayoglu’s complaint that his reputation had been gravely harmed by the articles, could not grant his request for the appellants to withdraw the articles, alternatively publish a full denial, or alternatively, retract the fugitive allegation. Given the narrow focus of the appeal finding above, the panel felt that the sanction imposed by the Ombud, namely, that the two newspapers publish an “apology to Mr Bayoglu for not asking him to comment on the allegation that he was a fugitive, and to his publish his denial to this effect” was fair and reasonable.

15. For all the reasons given above, the applicants appeal, and the respondent’s counter-appeal, are dismissed, and the following order is made: The Ruling of the Press Ombud is hereby confirmed. In its entirety.

Dated this 21st day of August 2017

Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel

Mr B Gibson, Member, Public Representative

Ms J Sandison, Member, Press Representative

Ms C Mohlala, Member, Public Representative